WNBA star Brittney Griner was found guilty of drug charges in a Moscow courtroom on Thursday and sentenced to nine years in prison. After Griner was charged with smuggling and storing illegal drugs, a Russian judge agreed, finding that the professional basketball player had criminal intent.
Griner’s attorneys, Marina Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, plan to file an appeal, according to ABC News.
She’s very upset. Very upset, very stressed,” Blagovolina said of Griner. “She can hardly talk, honestly, so it’s difficult time for her.
BREAKING: WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia for over five months, was found guilty on drug charges. https://t.co/e3iJV6bqXR
— ABC News (@ABC) August 4, 2022
The two-time Olympic gold medalist played in Russia during the WNBA off-season to earn more money – not unusual in a sport where the top player earns just a little over $200,000 annual base pay, compared to nearly 10 times more for their male counterparts.
U.S. President Joe Biden condemned the judge’s decision, calling it “unacceptable” and vowing not to give up on trying to bring the 31-year-old Houston native home.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden wrote in the statement. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who’s been detained in Russia since 2019 on espionage charges.
The State Department has classified both Griner and Whelan as “wrongfully detained,” with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announcing last week an attempt to negotiate with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,
“[They] have been wrongly detained and must be allowed to come home,” Blinken told reporters in Washington, D.C., on July 27. “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope [to] move us toward a resolution.”
Blinken’s proposal to trade convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout – arrested and jailed 14 years ago – in exchange for the two Americans has yet to be agreed to.
A week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Griner, a star center for the Phoenix Mercury team, was pulled aside at the airport after vape cartridges were found in her luggage. Griner testified in a Russian court last week that she was in a hurry while packing and didn’t mean to leave them in her bag – but asserted that she has permission to use and buy them in the U.S.
A letter from a U.S. physician, presented by one of her attorneys, backs up Griner’s claims that she has a cannabis prescription to help the athlete deal with chronic pain.
Prior to the verdict on Thursday, the emotional detainee apologized for the hurt her arrest and detention has caused her loved ones. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a joint statement in support of Griner calling her sentence “unjustified and unfortunate.”
Taking the advice of her Russian counsel, Brittney Griner pled guilty last month. Her attorneys released a statement at the time saying, “the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
It appears that their hopes made little difference in Griner’s sentencing. In custody for five months, Griner was initially facing 10 years in prison.
Elizabeth Rood, the Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Russia – who attended every hearing – told reporters, “Ms. Griner was wrongfully detained. Nothing in today’s decision changes that determination.”
Original reporting by Deena Zaru at ABC News.
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